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I'm an Arab trans woman and a Canadian immigrant – but I don't technically exist in either of my countries

A monster, at least, has a definition. A mermaid too. But not the being I am. In a place where you don’t exist, neither in the language nor legally, how is it possible to live? 

Thursday 24 August 2017 12:04 BST
(The Independent)

Five years ago, when I got the government scholarship that would allow me to go to Canada, I started to dream of new words. French and English words, spoken and written, fresh words, dusty words; words to define myself and my body, to cradle the girl that I wanted to be.

I had plenty of words already; Arabic is a dense language with words that are sometimes too poetic to be patriarchal. But when it comes to sex, sexuality and gender, there is a disheartening lack of words in the standard use of Arabic. I didn’t have words specifically for who I was and who I was becoming.

I said goodbye to Tunisia, and I ran away. I took a plane for the first time, I touched the snow for the first time, I was scared, I was happy, and mostly, I was alone. But not for long. Hot child in the city, I met Montreal’s community of queer and trans people of colour, a community that taught me the first of the words I needed. Precious words to name my feelings, my desires, my distress, my orgasms, my transgender body, my transgender body of colour, and all the fast-paced beats of my heart that has now become open to the possibility of being. Being me, being trans, a girl seeking birth, a stranger seeking home.

My gender story started a long time ago when, as a child, I used to steal Barbie dolls from the neighbours’ daughter. It started with identifying with Prue Halliwell from Charmed, and with my marked, yet forbidden, love for belly dancing. Throughout the years, there was the same old feeling of a lack or hunger inside  –  a different sort of hunger from craving words. A hunger for budding breasts, blossoming cheekbones, body borderlands and, as I would later discover, womanhood.

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Being trans has different and endless definitions, according to every trans person, and so do womanhood and manhood, according to everyone, if everyone really cares to think about them. I did not wish for womanhood as much as I wished to redefine womanhood in a way that would make me feel good in my skin. I was yearning to redefine gender, humanness; to, in Janet Mock’s words, redefine realness. Needless to say, redefining all these things came along with redefining my privileges and life prospects, what I could or could not achieve as a gender minority. And apart from the happiness, the excitement, the wonderful local and international family of queer and trans people of colour (Q&TPOC), redefining myself and finding the words to be trans came with social insecurities, nightmares about being murdered, and high costs of hormonal treatments that were not fully reimbursed by Quebec’s healthcare system.

But the hardest thing was that, as an immigrant, my new words would never fully belong to me. They were meaningless in my mother tongue; they couldn’t make the journey home.

In Tunisia, I do not exist

Coming back to Tunisia in 2015, coming back and coming out, makes my new words  –  and by extension the person that I am or have become  –  lose their meaning. At Tunisian customs, if an agent notices that the name and the gender marker on your passport do not match your appearance, then you have to explain things in Western terms, switching to French to use the word “transgenre” and give a definition that is hardly understood in an Arabic context. Better to turn into a cloud of smoke.

To my mother, too, my personhood can only be defined in Arabic words of binary sexes. When coming out to her, I felt the pressure of the words, or more accurately, the old pressure caused by the lack of words. I could not use “trans” in English or French, simply because my mother does not understand English or French and has no knowledge of what the word signifies in these languages. Losing meaning, the foreign word “trans” annihilates me.

I crossed one sea and one ocean, hoping to find words to define myself. Words that, when uttered in Arabic, are as hollow as the sound of the wind.

I remember my mother asking me this question: why would you follow the West? I looked into her tearful eyes and told her that this has nothing to do with the West; that it is all about me, about how I feel, about giving birth to the gender hybrid I have always been. I told her about mermaids, in whom some townspeople where she lives believe. I told her about shape-shifting smokeless fire Jinns mentioned in the Quran; I told her about brave Jalel, who recently sparked a huge debate in Tunisia, and who, once more, made me acknowledge the existence of the little girl in me who dreamt to be a witch and hex all patriarchs.

But, again, and to my greatest dismay, there was no Arabic word for “trans.” A monster, at least, has a definition. A mermaid too. But not the being I am.

Being a trans person in the Arab world is a bit of an anachronism. It starts with a paradox, and ends with negation. The words “جنسي متحوِّل”, in Arabic, literally mean “the one who changes his sex.” Outside the dictionary, unknown to the public, this expression, anatomical and, dare I say, implying all the condemnatory social and religious baggage about changing one’s “natural” morphology, is meaningless. In queer and medical circles, the word “ترانس” – a literal translation of the English “trans”  –  is used. Once uttered outside these circles, this Anglicism, too, signifies absolutely nothing. And that’s what being trans in the Arab world means. It means crossing the boundary of the intelligible, stepping outside the domain of the definable, standing on the verge of linguistic nothingness, perched and fearing that, today or tomorrow, we might turn into dust.

In a place where you don’t exist, neither in the language nor legally, how is it possible to live? How is it possible to even engage in speaking or in a meaningful public presence without being signalled as unintelligible, foreign, non-human, non-existent?

Saying goodbye to my mother, I realised that it was the last time I would see her. Inside, I hoped she could see me for the first time, even though she could not find the words to define the person standing in front of her.

In Quebec, I do not exist either

In the post office, in the bank, at the registration desk of a conference, in the library, in most places where you need to show an ID card to access a certain service, I do not exist. My vampy lipstick, the winged eyeliner, the curly black hair, and the black-painted nails, all introduce a young woman who likes to be feminine and who, clearly, isn’t afraid of using some makeup.

She is a girl, an Arab girl, a sophisticated girl, a goth girl, a femme-fatale girl, just a girl, until her papers say she isn’t. It is at that moment when people around you stare at you in revulsion and the person to whom you’re showing your ID starts to misgender you. It is at that moment when I feel the pressure, the obligation, and all the sadness that comes with having to publicly explain that I’m trans and that I have been transitioning from male to female. Things get complicated when the person to whom I have to explain this chooses not to understand and, later, refuses to provide me with the same service with which they provide cisgender people.

Because my legal papers do not match my gender presentation, I’m always outed and exposed to the risk of verbal and physical violence. Because my legal papers still carry the wrong gender designation and the wrong name that was assigned to me at birth, I started to avoid going to the post office (my roommate does it for me), and I pretend to have forgotten my ID at home whenever someone asks me for it. Because my legal documents invalidate my gender identity, I’m constantly denied existence as a woman, as myself.

As an immigrant trans woman in Quebec, I have to be accepted as a Canadian citizen before I will be allowed to change my sex designation and name. Only then can I have coherent and concordant legal papers where my gender designation is female, and my name is Dalia. But to become a citizen, I will have to wait five to six years. Until then, I’m obliged to play hide-and-seek in a legal limbo, living in fear and discrimination.

Moons And Stars

Today, denied socio-semantic and legal existence in Tunisia and still not legally recognized as a trans woman in Quebec, I stand in an awkward space of not belonging anywhere.

I keep dreaming of having a home, a homeland, of knowing that I belong somewhere  –  somewhere where there are words to define myself. I keep dreaming of not having to run away only to find words that would later fail me. I keep dreaming of making sense in all languages, in every country of the world.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if we can really belong somewhere, if being or becoming a citizen of a country means really having a home. And what does it mean to have a home when you are always in between  –  in between cultures, in between genders, in between existing and not existing, in between existing and the threat of your existence being gruesomely ended.

I tend to feel at peace on airplanes, precisely nowhere in the sky, a tiny particle among moons and stars. Somehow, it is comforting, but sometimes it is my worst nightmare  –  being uprooted, floating, always in orbit. I wonder if people who have travelled long journeys in space and identity are supposed to find a home, or if somewhere they are fated to become moons and stars.

This article was amended on 18 November 2021 to remove the author’s name and photograph.

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